Friday, 1 August 2014

Kanchenjungha (1962)

A remarkable number of important Indian filmmakers were born in the first half of the 1920s, such as Satyajit Ray (1921-1992), Raj Kapoor (1924-1988), Tapan Sinha (1924-2009), Guru Dutt (1925-1964, his real name was Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone), Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976) and Mrinal Sen (born 1923 and still alive, 91 years old). Alas, of these only Ray could be considered well-known outside of India these days, and even he is somewhat invisible. He is known as the maker of the Apu trilogy, a "neorealist master", but that is unfortunate because that was just the beginning. He then grew as a filmmaker, becoming better and more interesting, and moving far beyond being a "neorealist", whatever that might mean. In the 1960s he made extraordinary films such as The Big City (1963) and Charulata (1964) but it could be argued that the 1970s was Ray's best decade, when he did films such as The Adversary (1970), Company Limited (1972) Distant Thunder (1973) and The Middleman (1976). In time I will write a long essay about Ray, one of the greatest of all filmmakers, but for now just a few words about Kanchenjungha (1962). It was his first in colour and the first he wrote by himself, not based on something else. Besides writing and directed it he was also the producer, and he wrote the music, as he often did. He usually designed the posters for his films as well, but I do not know if that was the case here.

The film is set on a hill in Darjeeling, overlooking the mountain Kanchenjunga (it is spelled differently from the film), to which a family has gone on holiday. Unfortunately the mountain itself has been hidden behind mist and clouds all the time they have been there so they have not seen it yet. (I had a similar experience once when I stayed in a small town at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan.) The family consists of the old couple, their daughters and the older daughter's husband and their child. Present is also a suitor to the younger daughter, as well as a bird-loving uncle. Little happens during the cause of the film, the characters walk around on the paths on the hill, discussing their relationships and problems they have. The centre drama concerns the younger daughter. The suitor has been pre-approved by the father; it is to be an arranged marriage, although the father is the only one in favour of it. He does not know this though because nobody has said anything against it, or protested. It is a film in which hardly anybody is happy, maybe just the bird-loving uncle, but eventually they all reach a point where they cannot take it any more. But there are no big emotional eruptions, this is a quiet film.

It is also a wonderful film, filled with Ray's warmth and compassion, and the structure, with repetitions, detours and circular movements (there is a recurring image of a girl on a bicycle for example), is both subtle and complex. There is also a lot of humour, and the camera work by Ray's regular DP, Subrata Mitra, captures the mist and the texture of the place very well. Everything works together beautifully.

There are many themes addressed in the film, with the issue of arranged marriages being just one of them. Class, gender, the ghosts of British India (it was made 14 years after India became independent); it is all there, although in such a way that it does not feel preachy or obvious. It is just the scenes between the older daughter and her husband, quarrelling over an affair she has had, that are a bit clumsy, perhaps because the actors lack conviction.

Ray was from Bengal, a successor of the Bengali renaissance to which, among others, his mentor and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore belonged. From Tagore's writings Ray would make several adaptations and although this is not one of them, Tagore's book The Home and the World is woven into the dialogue. It might not be Ray's best film, and rather unknown and unseen, but it is still an essential film.

While we are on the subject on Indian cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, the team Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, together with the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, are known for their English dramas, such as A Room With a View (1985), Howard's End (1991) and Remains of the Day (1993), but they began in India where they made several fine films, and on four of their films Subrata Mitra was cinematographer, including The Householder (1963) and Shakespeare-Wallah (1965). I would also like to recommend their TV-films Autobiography of a Princess (1975) with James Mason and Madhur Jaffrey and Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (1978) with Aparna Sen (as Bonnie), Victor Banerjee (as Georgie), Saeed Jaffrey and Peggy Ashcroft.


  1. I've never heard of Kapoor and Sinha. How have you managed to see their films? I'm glad that the Criterion Collection includes several Satyajit Ray films (and one by Ritwik Ghatak, although I think it's a fairly weak film), but I wish they'd do a "Bollywood 101" box set. I'm sure it would sell better than the Jean-Pierre Gorin or Chantal Akerman boxes they've released.

  2. In Britain it is not that hard coming across Indian films. Although regarding Sinha I have actually only seen one film, and without subtitles...

    Are you sure Bollywood would sell better? A lot is probably already available, and more affordable than a Criterion release would be, whereas the customer base for Criterion might be more willing to spend on Gorin and Akerman.

  3. I can only speak to the American audience for Bollywood films, but video and theatrical releases seem aimed almost entirely at the Indian-American community. This is large enough to sustain a steady flow of theatrical releases in New York for new Bollywood films, but I have no idea which ones might be worth seeing. I think introducing it to the arthouse audience, who probably only think of Satyajit Ray when they hear "Indian cinema," would be a worthy endeavor for someone like Criterion, although you're probably right that a lot of classic Bollywood films are already available at reasonable prices.